Sunday, 30 October 2016

Behind the Armchair Theatre… The Norliss Tapes (1973)

There’s something extra spooky about a low-budget TV movie. As movie theatres featured increasingly graphic horrors NBC sought to keep its audience in front of screen by doing as much as it could to scare them through atmospherics and acting.

The Norliss Tapes is one of the most memorable as an over-achiever in a medium in which output was auto-limited by self-censorship, advertiser and audience sensibility as well as budgets designed more for speed than comfort. Four stars out of five or seven out of ten is probably optimal for a seventies TV movie and on both scales The Norliss Tapes nearly maxes out.

Producer-director Dan Curtis had previously worked on TV movie The Night Stalker (1972) and knew his goggle-box-bound trade very well. This feature was intended, like that, to spawn an ongoing TV series but in this case the option was not followed through which is a shame but so it goes.

Angie Dickinson
The potential series’ ongoing structure is revealed in a framing device in which a publisher, in search of his deadline-dodging investigative author, starts playing tapes of his projected next book. The author David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) has set himself the aim of debunking the supernatural and, surprise, seems to have found that the opposite may well be the case. As Norliss’ voice-over fades her reveals his hesitancy in publishing is based on the fear his revelations will unleash…

Fade to flashback as we find Norliss pottering about his subject with a confident, professional air we know will soon dissipate… he has a call from a woman Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson, building up her TV presence before Police Woman) who claims to have seen her dead husband – sounds fishy, surely a Scoobie Doo explanation must be forthcoming?

But Dan Curtis doesn’t hang around… soon we’ll see that there’s actual something specifically supernatural and the late Mr Cort is out and about killing…

Roy Thinnes
None of this sounds remotely gripping when I write but Curtis generates genuine tense through judicious low camera angles, lighting and the odd dollop of hysteria.

Ellen tells Norliss that her husband had recently died from a rare brain disorder - Pick's Disease (no, me neither… Dr House?) – and had been seeking magical help from a spooky yet sexy modern witch Mademoiselle Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee) – who along with the incense and peppermints had given him a scarab ring symbolizing the Egyptian god Osiris.

A visit to Mr Cort’s impressive mausoleum reveals him to be only an occasional visitor to his final resting place and what is more someone has been moulding a life-size demonic statue using a strange red clay… can you guess where the colour comes from?

Vonetta McGee
Naturally there’s a local sheriff, expertly played by upstanding Claude Akins – without whom no TV movie of the time would be complete – who, to his credit, plays fair but tends to rely too much on a fact-based approach. If only law enforcement officers were given a broader grounding in the occult…

Norliss applies his own research whilst the body count rises and a near miss with the red-eyed, blue-faced Mr Corpse… sorry Cort… who is strong enough to almost rip his former wife from within their locked car: no motor vehicles were harmed during the making of this film… On the contrary, it’s worth noting that Norliss drives a rather fine Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, one of my favourite cars of the period and more than a match for your Mustang or Jaguar.

The Chevvy
There are many fine shots of the car shooting along the Californian coast line, as Norliss heads off in search of resolution. But, all car fetishizing aside, there’s perhaps a juxtaposition of the modern against the unstoppable force of the ancient occult.

And there’s the rub: can Norliss find a way of working out what is happening, suspending disbelief of author and – being honest, audience – in time to save the beauteous Ellen. There’s twists and possibly untrustworthy humans as realization dawns and the way out is to trust to the old ways.

"You're in a deep, dark cave..."
Maybe there’s a deeper connection to the unease felt by many at headlong modernization or maybe it’s just mean to be fun? Either way the end result is still entertaining if you just turn off your mind, relax and float down main-stream…  Saturday entertainment has changed but we still like a little touch of the night.

Claud Rains is Claud Rains and perfect for his part, whilst Roy Thinnes makes for the ideal intellectual leading man. All he’s missing is a relationship with Angie Dickinson’s damsel in dead-husband distress but perhaps the wasn’t enough time. Angie gives could beauty and acts well within herself (code for actually needs a better script) whilst Vonetta McGee adds some class as the woman with satanic connections.

Low-angled tape listening
Dusty verdict: As always with TV movies there’s something missing: budget, freedom of expression time to fully develop the narrative… But there’s enough here to keep you interested whether it’s the nostalgia of reviewing after so much time or the simple fun of the finished product.

The Norliss Tapes is now available on DVD… worth a look but you may be disturbed if only for a little while.

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